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Thatcher's 'sermon on the mound'

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William Crawley | 12:00 UK time, Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Margaret_Thatcher_339082a.jpgLast night, to mark the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's election as prime minister, BBC Parliament re-ran the entire TV coverage of election night, presented by a youthful David Dimbleby, with political interviews conducted by Robin Day at the other end of the studio. It was, I am not ashamed to admit, a great night of TV.

In her first speech to the cameras, delivered on the steps of Downing Street after returning from the palace, Mrs Thatcher quoted words attributed (probably wrongly) to St Francis of Assisi -- and we marked the 800th anniversary of his conversion on last Sunday's programme.

I thought today it would be interesting to recall a later speech about religion by Mrs Thatcher, in which she appeared to use theology to provide a justification for her political and economic policies. This speech, given to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 1988, was nicknamed "the Sermon on the Mound" by the press (the mound being the hill upon which the church's Assembly Hall stands). Read the speech in full here.

It's said that this speech marked the beginning of the end for Conservative rule in Scotland, with many voices raised in opposition to what they regarded as an alien creed that abused classic Christian ideas in an effort to fashion a political manifesto. Mrs Thatcher's supporters say the church invited the prime minister to speak and they shouldn't have been surprised that she would say what she thought. But the Church of Scotland's General Assembly was, at that time, the closest thing Scotland had to a national political assembly, and Mrs Thatcher appears not to have realised the political significance of the gathering.

Mrs Thatcher was accused of arrogantly lecturing church leaders on theology: 'I believe that by taking together these key elements from the Old and New Testaments, we gain: a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life. We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. "If a man will not work he shall not eat" wrote St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Indeed, abundance rather than poverty has a legitimacy which derives from the very nature of Creation.'

The statement most cited from this speech was itself a quotation: "Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform". This was a speech that emphasised personal responsibility, wealth creation and the danger of an overly-active state. Reading it now, you may wonder what all the commotion was about back in 1988. That's a sign of how much the political landscape of Britain, and Scotland for that matter, has changed since then.

A coda: After completing the speech, the Moderator of the General Assembly, Dr James Whyte, presented Mrs Thatcher with some books as a momento of her visit. He handed over recent church reports on poverty, housing and a fair social benefit system, and the house broke into both laughter and applause as he read out the titles of the reports.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thatcher's speech is thoughtful and you have to wonder what so upset the clerics. She is right about wealth creation, and about christianity. individuals change the world, not governments.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's worth noting that the church itself provided a welfare system for its members. It provided for necessities and famine relief, as well as provision for widows and orphans.
    It's also worth noting that the prophets of the Old Testament (and some of the New- go read James or the epistles) argued in favor of concern for the poor over the rich.
    Finally if you follow the premise of said quote, then everyone who could would be doing some form of work. (Almost nobody wants to starve...) This would result in a de facto full employment policy. (And that's something people (besides me) don't want...for some strange reason...)

  • Comment number 3.

    Yes, make me a channel of your peace!!

    Mrs Thatcher became a willing tool in some pretty vicious American foreign policy. Indulged in one of the pettiest wars in modern history, in the Falklands. Ordered the murder of over 300 young men on the General Belgrano when it was travelling away from the exclusion zone. (The war was a calculated move to get her re-elected.)

    She was a friend to some of the most ruthless and murderous dictators on the planet, Pinochet to name but one. She refused to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa stating that sanctions dont work. (She helped Reagan impose them on Latin American countries though where she obviously believed that they did work!!)

    She decimated communities in Scotland, shutting down steel works and coal mines and used the north sea oil to pay off the national debt. She imposed the obnoxious poll tax on the Scottish people one year before anyone else as a punishment for their refusal to vote for her.

    Her policies attacked the poor and underprivileged. She encouraged people to buy their own homes, then made sure that they couldnt pay their mortgages.

    She pandered to middle England, knowing that their support would ensure her continuance in power. She showed total contempt and cruelty to everyone else.

    Her 'sermon on the mound' was one of the most arrogant speeches she ever gave, basically telling the church to stick to preaching about sexual morality and to stay out of politics (social reform.) (Clergy were outraged - and rightly so - because they were the ones who were often picking up the pieces of her callous attacks on the vulnerable in society.) And.... she used the Bible to justify her belief in rampant capitalism. Her use of the parable of the talents was so contrived it would have been funny, were it not so nauseating.

    Her latest move to demand a state funeral for herself, really says it all.

    Jovial, it might be safe to blog anonymously in such glowing terms about her 'thoughtful' speech at the mound, but I wouldnt whisper it too loudly in this part of the world.

  • Comment number 4.

    A good overview of Thatcher's political beliefs was given by George Carlin.

    Thatcher believed in a class society, upper, middle and lower.

    The purpose of the upper class was to go to the bank and collect all the money for themselves.
    The purpose of the middle class was to do all the work.
    The purpose of the lower class was to scare the s*** out of the middle class.... and keep 'em turning up for work!!

  • Comment number 5.

    Yes, who could forget that 'St Francis of Assisi' quote? It was so supremely hypocritical that it left most right-thinking people speechless.
    This, at a time when Britain was more divided than it had ever been - thanks to Maggie and her cohorts.
    As usual RJB has kinda said it all, really. And more articulately than I could.
    I dont actually want to hear anything else maggie has to say, unless its 'im really sorry for messing the country up' lol. Even then, I'd doubt her motives.
    She better start praying ok tho, as I think she's got quite a lot to answer for when the big girl upstairs gets hold of her :-)

  • Comment number 6.

    Electra, Mrs Thatcher wasn't responsible for Britain's divisions in 1979, she had only just been elected, and had only been leader of the conservatives for 3 years.

  • Comment number 7.


    lol, come on. I think there might be larger issues here than Electra's memory.

    What exactly is the point of your posts here?

  • Comment number 8.


    My apologies. At least you commented. I'm perplexed as to why there has been such a deafening silence on this thread. Maybe someone could enlighten me.


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